LIFE & LEISURE IN EARLY LOS ANGELES 1860 – 1910
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
In 1860, California had been a state for only a decade. The gold rush brought many settlers to the San Francisco Bay Area, which already displayed conspicuous signs of wealth and culture imported and adapted from the East Coast. Most of Southern California, by contrast, was open, unsettled, land. Los Angeles was no more than a small town of simple adobe houses, ranches, and dirt roads. Land was essentially worthless—so much so that in 1858, when merchant Harris Newmark was given the choice between two loads of firewood or one hundred and ten acres on the outskirts of town in payment of a debt, he chose the firewood without hesitation.1 Between 1860 and the turn of the twentieth century, however, Angeleños developed extensive citrus farms and vineyards, and trade growth began to take off. Los Angeles underwent a major transformation in the American imagination. By 1900 it was an idyllic destination and was attracting droves of tourists, as well as immigrants from the East Coast. Both came to profit from the mild weather. The city’s population at the turn of the century had just topped 100,000, over sixty times what it had been in 1850.2 From the beginning, Southern California was a land of opportunity with just a hint of danger, which made it fascinating at a distance but also colored the daily lives of residents. Because of the vastness of the sparsely populated land, Angeleños in the second half of the nineteenth century had a significantly different attitude towards space than their East Coast counterparts. Standing on Bunker Hill, today the financial district of downtown Los Angeles, a person in the early 1860s would see nothing more than a few rose-covered adobe cottages, shaded paths, horse-drawn carriages, and open spaces with groves of trees beyond. As Sarah Bixby Smith wrote of her childhood in Los Angeles in the 1870s: “The eyes could follow across flat lands, treeless, except for a few low-growing willows, to far blue mysterious mountains. It was a very empty land, empty of people and towns, of trees and cultivated fields”.3 Early Angeleños also had a different attitude towards time, thanks to the greater distances between neighbors, the longer daylight hours, and the milder weather. They had more time to farm, more time to socialize, but not much yet in the way of organized leisure activities or entertainment. While there are abundant formal histories for this era, scholarship covering daily social life and leisure is somewhat limited. This article uses secondary, as well as numerous primary sources to paint a portrait of how people spent their time in 19th century Los Angeles, with a focus on common citizens who had recently immigrated from the American East Coast.
1850s Los Angeles was a small town with little communication with the outside world. Even though settlers and fortune-seekers flooded into San Francisco during the gold rush, the merits of Southern California were unknown except to a few. The town’s tiny population was made up of Mexican ranchers, disappointed miners from the north who were the cause of much trouble, local Native Americans, and con men and thugs who preyed on the ranchers and merchants. The Bella Union Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was the area’s social headquarters throughout the ‘fifties. Early settler Mary Ann Standlee, born of an English father in 1860, described in her memoirs the remoteness of Los Angeles in that era, as well as the seemingly vast expanses of time:
By our ranch there were only a few families living in that part of the country (Pico Rivera). In our country school house there were not many children at first. Now I look back on those times with fond memories. Looking back to pioneer days I was so young at that time that I did not realize what pioneering meant. Much of the hard work was done by the cholos of which there were many. Helping my father herd his cattle I learned to ride horse back. My-oh-my how we did ride through the mustard higher than our heads and up and down the river. We had plenty of time to ride. 4 The Americanization of Southern California began in earnest in 1868— the year the first bank was founded, the first artesian well tapped, and the construction of Southern California’s first railroad begun, between Los Angeles and San Pedro. The breakup of the great ranchos—most significantly in 1868 that of early land baron Abel Stearns’s extensive holdings across Southern California—paved the way for the first land boom. Former rancho land was subdivided into towns and farms of twenty to one hundred and sixty acres and offered for sale to settlers at low prices. With the opening of the First Transcontinental Railroad in 1869:5 “easterners started hearing surprising news of the west. There was more to Southern California than parched land and desperados. Most surprising was news that while Easterners were shivering in freezing winter weather, Californians were basking in warm sunshine. Astonishing! California suddenly seemed like a paradise instead of hell on earth”. 6
Many families came from Northern California and the East after the Civil War to take advantage of small farm opportunities, great weather, and a good lifestyle. The Pico House hotel opened in 1869. By 1874 competition had developed, including the Clarendon Hotel, the United States Hotel, and Lafayette Hotel. In 1875, the year before the Southern Pacific Railroad reached Los Angeles, 284 steamers and 116 sailing vessels were anchored in San Pedro. That year 11,984 passengers arrived and 8,200 departed. For the twenty years from 1855 to 1875, there was considerably more tonnage of freight in imports than exports.7 When the Southern Pacific Railroad finally connected Los Angeles to the transcontinental system in 1876, the stage was set for explosive growth and an eventual transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial society. That year, the value of lots soared from $10 each to $150 in the city of San Fernando, the San Fernando Valley’s first organized community, established just two years prior.8
Real estate agents capitalized on the image of Los Angeles’s idyllic weather, as well as appealing to romantic notions of working the land. Grider and Hamilton, turn-of-the-century real estate agents, exclaimed in a 1905 advertising brochure that:
“the climate delights of the land of sunshine are such as to implant in the bosom of every man and woman who comes here an ardent desire to own a home, to live among the orange blossoms, literally to sit under one’s own vine and fig tree, in short to live as close as possible to mother nature consistent with the burdens and exactions of workaday life”. 9 While the fantasy painted by Grider and Hamilton may have been a pleasing vision when they published it, Los Angeles was growing into a city, ranchero culture from earlier days was a different story of self-sufficiency. The ranchers were their own butchers and bakers. They ate what they raised themselves, drank what they distilled, and wore clothes sewn by their wives. Husbands and wives worked their own land, often with the help of Californio and Indian laborers. Writing in the 1880s, philosopher Josiah Royce described the character of mid-century Californians as “careless, hasty and blind to social duties [but] on the other hand as cheerful, energetic, courageous and teachable”.10 Struggle—and its reward—was a popular theme among early settlers to Los Angeles. Land was seemingly infinite at that time, ripe for the taking by anyone industrious enough to tame it. Thirty-five-acre plots were offered free to anyone who would improve the property by investing two hundred dollars over the course of a year—although land with a reliable water supply was more valuable and came at much higher prices. Los Angeles journalist and ethnographer Charles Lummis described the Yankees’ arrival in a largely Latino settlement, where “they made vital changes in the [existing] commercial and municipal methods.” According to Lummis, “They joined hands in the struggle for law and order and after a wild and wooly decade they succeeded measurably well”.11 Whereas immigrants to Northern California might have been hoping to strike gold and get rich quick, success in Los Angeles was slower but also more reliably achieved through work and a will to tame the land. Settlers typically arrived with little but soon made their own way. A farmer’s lifestyle did not require much capital, and careful farming did not usually carry much risk of loss. The East Coast immigrants also brought with them updated farming practices that replaced the traditional methods of working fields by hand. Farm productivity increased several times over as farmers hitched teams of animals to their plows, harrows, harvesting machinery, and wagons. German-born American journalist Charles Nordhoff claimed a family could “live comfortably, secure, and independent after some years on eighty acres”. 12
Farmers were constantly building and improving. A typical small farmer’s improvements aside from his home might include sinking an artesian well, raising fences for animals, constructing outbuildings, plowing fields, and planting crops. According to A.T. Hawley, a settler in the 1870s, “Settlers are improving and adorning their homes with fruit and ornamental trees and intend to be friendly rivals with their neighbors in the matter of making the new settlement attractive and prosperous”. 13 While the consistency of the weather most of the time facilitated farming, Los Angeles’s climate was dry, and the unreliability of the water supply shaped the types of farming that did succeed on larger scales. Southern California’s agricultural industry was made possible by dependable water sources such as reservoirs and irrigation ditches (zanjas) that turned dry land into wealth-producing soil. Cattle raising had been a primary industry in Southern California in the first half of the 19th century, but it almost came to an end with the drought and famine of 1863-64. By the mid-1870s the great cattle, sheep, and grain ranches of the 1860s were things of the past. Much more successful were the citrus orchards and vineyards first introduced by Mission padres and eventually planted throughout Southern California.14 The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in Los Angeles opened the transportation artery that brought people and prosperity. In the late 1880s new refrigerated rail cars allowed Angeleño farmers to ship fruit across the country, and Los Angeles quickly became the region’s trade center. Oranges, more than anything else, created modern Los Angeles. Citrus farming was good business and had just a touch of exoticism that appealed to the American imagination.
Early Angeleño Jackson Graves expressed a characteristic settler’s love for the land and its productivity, writing in his memoir, Seventy Years in California (1927): Let us appreciate, enjoy and defend until our dying day, this glorious land, unswept by blizzards, untouched by winter’s cruel frosts, unscathed by the torrid breath of sultry summer, and land of perpetual sunshine, where roses, carnations, heliotrope and a thousand rare flowers bloom in the open air continually, where in the spring time the senses are oppressed by the odor of orange and lemon blossoms, and where the orchards yield a harvest in returns as to be almost beyond human comprehension. 15 Los Angeles Ranger and historian Horace Bell also extolled the forgiving nature of the land in Southern California, writing that “the face of the earth would smile whenever touched by the hardy pioneer and crops of corn would grow almost without labor”.16
Not only were crops abundant, but even the size of the produce was a marvel. Settler James Guinn, who later became superintendent of Los Angeles City Schools, wrote to his brother and sister in 1870 about the size of oranges, apples, and grapes grown in Los Angeles: “Don’t ever take a pleasure trip east to see what man has done till you come west and see what God has done and man too for the Central Pacific railroad was a perfect marvel to us all”.17 Guinn’s boast reveals the equal pride Southern Californians took in the natural abundance and productivity of the land resulting from their own efforts.
At the same time, small farming had its risks and was by no means a get- rich-quick scheme, especially for the inexperienced. Hawley described farming hazards and success as a matter of patience and perseverance: Men buy some acres of land on time and scratch the surface with poor apology for a plow, sow their seed and wait for a harvest going into debt in the mean time for their meat, butter, milk, potatoes and everything of which the colonist raises for home consumption. The men who utilize their land and live within their means and wait patiently for their orchards to arrive at maturity, their livestock to multiply and replenish, their alfalfa fields to become rooted, succeed in LA County. 18 A case in point of perseverance was Jackson Graves, for whom calamity struck several times before he achieved the returns “almost beyond human comprehension” recalled so fondly in his memoir. In 1882 Graves and his wife bought a farm in Alhambra. It was planted with six and a half acres of oranges, lemons, and limes; however, a freeze soon killed the original trees. Graves bought more adjacent land and had thirty acres planted with Valencia oranges. This crop flourished for several years, but the struggle for water was constant. Graves’s water source that came down from the San Gabriel Mountains slowed to a trickle because of heavy use by others upstream. Consequently, he acquired more water rights and ran a small tunnel for his supply, but this source too dried up. Next, Graves purchased nearby land with water rights, drilled wells, and ran another small tunnel. This source produced a surplus, and Graves was able to sell water to the city of Alhambra. 19
The Graves family owned their home and citrus farm until 1927 and raised their children there. During their forty-five years of ownership, the land supported them. The farm provided its own fruit, vegetables, chickens, milk, and other products. The sale of citrus and farm products paid the costs of housing and living expenses, and during good years they netted a profit.20 Graves’s energy and the attitude required to bounce back from periodic disaster are an example of the resilience that was typical of many settlers. Late 19th century Los Angeles’ air of collective struggle and enterprise gave it an immediate sense of community. In the early years, settlers from the East Coast were spread out and enjoyed their autonomy but would also travel long distances by horse and buggy to visit one another, which contributed to their feeling of frontier camaraderie and solidarity. Everyone shared the same ranching and farming problems which were a common subject of conversation. Early resident Henry Page described how “in those unhurried times newcomers were made to feel welcome. If they had already bought land and intended to settle, one of the first questions asked was whether or not they knew how to plow”.21 Typically, the only source of friction between neighbors would be water rights, since water was always scarce. There may have been disparities of wealth, but those with money were careful not to show it. For many years, there were few social cliques and people mixed easily, as most shared the same aspirations. Neighbors freely shared things like a scoop of butter, a pound of honey, or a shoulder of pork. New arrivals were accepted without discrimination, with the exception of Native Americans and Chinese immigrants.
Reminiscing when he wrote in the mid-1920s, Jackson Graves looked back to the simpler, friendlier times of early Los Angeles: It seems to me that we had more pleasure in those days than we do now. We were not driven [to work] from morning till night. We felt more at liberty to take a day off, to go into the woods picnicking, trout fishing or hunting. Our pleasures were simpler than they are today. In 1875 everybody in Los Angeles knew everybody else. There was no class distinction as we have today. Some of them got rich and others had remained poor but the rich and the poor were still friends. 22
As Graves’s comments suggest, new transplants from the East Coast were also united by their love of the novelty of perpetually good weather and the feeling of having more time. Charles Lummis noted the time saved by the good weather, claiming that the Southern Californian “farmer has three times more time to work in the country than in the East, and the business
Figure 2: Organized picnics were popular in the 1890s. This group in 1892 is headed for a fun summer afternoon near the Arroyo in Pasadena. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
man saves a lot each year on weather friction”.23 The increased productivity also left Angeleños with more time for themselves. As in other parts of the West, these immigrants from the East found a new sense of freedom and an exhilarating emancipation from many of their cares and responsibilities. Los Angeles was an individualistic society where people were usually proud of their quality of life at least as much as they were of their commercial successes.
Perhaps because of the perception of ample time, many Angeleños developed a reputation for a “mañana habit,” a leisurely pace of life which also often connoted procrastination. Lummis, with his trademark sarcastic humor, remarked in his Out West Magazine upon the flood of transplants from the East Coast, of which he was one: “If we do not sneer, we smile at the ‘mañana habit’. The mañana habit is a matter not of race, nor speech, but of climate. As sure as God made little apples, this climate will put some mañana in even the most strenuous Saxon life”.24 Archduke Ludwig Salvator of Austria, who authored several travel books including one on Los Angeles in the 1870s, also noted the leisurely way of life: “It was recognized that diversion was a necessity in addition to work. A realization of work and play, drink and food, rest and reflection all had their places in the scheme of things. This attitude made the seventies a glorious decade. There was freedom and tolerance without restriction”.25 Even to the 19th century visitor, accustomed to the pace of horse-driven transportation and communication by post, life in Los Angeles was slow. So, what did Angeleños do with all that leisure time? As Jackson Graves remarked, “in 1875 there were few amusements”.26 However, from hunting to picnics to long trips in horse-drawn carriages to visit each other, Angeleños kept themselves busy. Graves continued: The young people arranged driving parties and picnics. Driving behind a good roadster was universally practiced. There were frequent picnics in the Arroyo Seco and at Sycamore Canyon. The Turnverein society had athletic events and foot races. There was a pavilion where people danced. There were glee clubs, also lots of beer drinking when good times were had by all. At the beach at Santa Monica Canyon at this time there were no accommodations. Some families set up tents on the beach and went swimming in the surf. 27
Hunting both large and small game was popular from the time of early settlement through the 1890s. Most residents of Los Angeles had a hound dog for hunting rabbits. Prizes were sometimes offered for the owner of dogs that gave the best performance. Fifteen rabbits per day, per dog, was not unusual. There were also organized hunts for predator game such as wildcats, coyotes, and even bears. Jackson Graves mentioned the fact that bears were quite numerous in Southern California in 1875. Game was abundant with duck and geese in the coastal wetlands and quail and deer in the chaparral. Graves was an avid hunter and recorded his hunting trips both in the summer and in the winter. He remarked especially upon the ponds near the beach at Ballona, south of Santa Monica, which were full of geese. At night, he said, one could hear the honk-honk-honk of the Oregon gray goose ringing in his ears.28
East Coast immigrant Allie Prescott’s letters to her family in Boston gave detailed accounts of the typical Angeleño’s variety of outdoor and social activities, details of her day-to-day life, making them a valuable source of information about Los Angeles life and leisure. In 1869, when Prescott was in her early twenties, she traveled across the country on the newly opened transcontinental railroad and took a steamer down the coast from San Francisco to begin a new life as a schoolteacher in Los Angeles.
Prescott remarked that she should read the Los Angeles newspapers more often “but there is so little in them they are hardly worth the ten cents they cost”.29 Instead, her letters suggest that she spent a lot of time outside. She loved the garden of the house where she rented a room, remarking that “there are many kinds of flowers that I have never seen before which are very pretty. The roses and irises are splendid. Think of cutting roses from the garden in December. Rattlesnakes come out once in a while”.30 She had several hens in her yard that kept her supplied with eggs, and she also had kind neighbors who often sent her “something nice”.31 Although Prescott was homesick at first, she was soon won over by the friendliness of people in Southern California.32 She wrote: “I like the people I have met very much. They are free and easy. Everybody expects really that you will make yourself at home”.33 Five years after moving to Los Angeles, Prescott felt confident that “everyone likes it so much in California, after a year they are never contented to live in the East again”. 34
Prescott detailed several outings, often of some distance, to visit friends or to see the scenery. In October of 1874, for instance, she rode forty-six miles in a horse-drawn carriage with her friends Mr. and Mrs. French to visit their ranch near Santa Ana. Prescott explained in a letter to her sister that “the route to Anaheim does not seem much of a road. It was like riding through an exceedingly inconvenient field. Sometimes we would ride through a corn field, then through a large patch of mustard which grows higher than the top of the carriage. We forded two rivers up to the hubs.” She reported seeing buzzards, crows, blackbirds, meadowlarks in large flocks, herds of wild horses, and bands of sheep up to three thousand in number. “We stopped under the shade of some sycamores and had lunch.” In the same letter, she remarked on the beauty of the scenery: “The sunsets are perfectly magnificent. I’ve never seen anything like it. The clouds, the clear sky and the mountain air are glorious. You cannot imagine how quiet it is here. There is not a day but what I think I cannot be too thankful that I came here”.35 On another occasion, she described to her mother a camping trip to the shore to watch the moon rise and then to spend the night in the mountains.36
New arrivals generally found Southern California to be a very nice place to live and were always impressed by the weather, a constant theme in letters they sent back home. Nights were cool even in summer. Oleander and orange grew along the streets, and roses bloomed all year. Angeleños would sit on their front porch steps watching people, horses, and carriages pass by. Residents liked to be out of doors all year round, on the plaza or under a shady tree rather than in the house. Nordhoff, proud of his adopted residence, remarked that “at all these places you will meet pleasant, intelligent, and hospitable people who will add somewhat to our enjoyment”.37 One of Southern California’s most iconic festivals was inaugurated when Pasadena’s Valley Hunt Club organized the first Rose Parade on January 1, 1890, in order to show off Southern California’s mild winters at the same time of year that New York was deep in snow. A horse drawn carriage covered with flowers announced to the world that they were living in a paradise on that sunny winter day. Some two thousand people came out to see it.
Figure 3: Summer excursion to the beach, July 1896. Los Angeles Pacific Railroad from downtown Los Angeles, via Hollywood, to Santa Monica. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Railroad Heritage Foundation. In 19th century Los Angeles, Sundays were the prime days for socializing, first at church and then later with visits to neighbors. Residents had a strong sense of connection to their churches, and churchgoing was an occasion for some excitement. As a testament to this excitement, Allie Prescott reported in her letters about the finery she wore for church, including on separate occasions her silk and her cashmere.38 Mrs. Bixby Smith brought bouquets to the church every Saturday in preparation for the big day.39 After church, families would visit each other to play games of whist, croquet, tennis, and the men would play billiards.40 Picnic trips to Santa Monica were also popular on a Sunday. In the mid-1870s this itinerary was so popular that the twice-daily train to Santa Monica required eleven cars. 41
Before the late 1870s, there was little institutionalized entertainment. Entertainments tended to be spontaneous, and the entertainers were the ranchers themselves. Some events including amateur drama presentations, minstrel groups, or orchestras, were held in schoolhouses, and almost everyone turned out. Once in a while Velma Brown, the “Jenny Lind of Pasadena,” could be persuaded to sing “What do Birdies Dream of?”, and when she did the house was packed.42 Music was also performed in the street. In a letter in 1881, Allie Prescott wrote to her mother that she went to see a band playing “the liveliest music” on Main Street and that the band played “most evenings”.43 Sporting events were popular entertainment as well; for instance, Pasadena resident Sarah May Baker Fox wrote in her diary in 1889 that her husband Charles went to a football game and “returned on the last train”. 44
Figure 4: Agricultural Park, circa 1880 which later became Exposition Park, near the present day Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Huntington Library. Los Angeles’s first theater, the Merced, opened in 1870 near today’s Olvera Street. From time to time, traveling entertainers came to town and performed. Sometimes they stayed for weeks. During their applause, some enthusiastic men in the audience threw coins on the stage floor when they liked a particular actress. For young people, there were more playful activities. In 1871, a roller-skating rink opened. It was crowded nightly with boys and girls out on the town “cooing as they whirled around the hall on wheels”.45 Agricultural Park, on the site of today’s Los Angeles Coliseum, opened in 1872, as a site for agricultural fairs and horse racing. As evidence of another popular pastime, Charles Lummis reported that in 1870 Los Angeles had only 5,600 people but 110 saloons.46 With the emphasis on the outdoors and the scarcity of shops and entertainments in the early days, there was not much for people to spend their money on outside of the necessities of life and, in the case of ranchers or farmers, their land. Once again, Allie Prescott’s letters afford insight into just how different a place Los Angeles was, underscoring the claim that wealth was not a great distinguisher of people in early Los Angeles. At a time when a schoolteacher made $90 a month, Prescott wrote that she wanted to keep her “room at Mrs. Eldred’s home,” for which she paid two dollars a week. She later took a furnished room near the school at $18 per month, including meals. This Edenic existence would not last forever though: Prescott, like many others, was struck with land speculation fever. In 1886 she bought a lot for $3,500. A few months later she was offered $5,000, which she refused. She owed $500 on the lot and wanted to pay it off, but she could only afford to pay the interest. She said, “I am good for it” . 47
Figure 5: Broadway in Downtown Los Angeles 1903. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
Industrialization and urbanization were inevitable in such a prosperous settlement, and the built environment of the town registered rapid changes from approximately the time the railroad arrived. In the 1870s, people got around in Los Angeles by walking, on horseback, or by horse-drawn vehicle. The streets had hitching posts for horses, wagons, or carriages.48 A local law was passed that no horse-drawn vehicle could cross an intersection faster than a walk, and tickets were issued to those who did not comply. Los Angeles’ first horse-drawn streetcar, a hack, appeared in 1874. It was introduced in order to open the east side of the Los Angeles River where subdivided lots were offered to buyers.
Figure 6: The Land of Sunshine, Southern California. An 1893 advertising poster promoted California’s citrus farming culture and land of abundance with opportunities for all. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
Bicycles were imported from England in 1882 of the “Penny-farthing” type with a large wheel in front and small wheel in the back. These bikes were challenging for beginners. Once the more modern “safety” bicycle with equal-sized wheels appeared, many people, including women, took to them. Cycling quickly evolved from a sport to a necessity used by working people of all occupations. Clubs formed for bicycle rides after social gatherings for breakfast. Los Angeles’ first electric lights appeared at this time, while Main Street going up toward the Plaza was the first paved street.
Nevertheless, even in the 1880s, Los Angeles was a slow-paced growing town, as described by Mary Teegarden Clark in her journal. Clark saw the land around her “as an empty unrefined place but full of simple beauty and promise”.49 Los Angeles’ streets were unpaved and dust flew everywhere, yet many streets were planted with rows of pepper trees and eucalyptus trees from Australia. There was no sewer system. Despite this, the affluent women of Los Angeles did their best to recreate the elegance of San Francisco and New York and garnered enough interest to support a local French dressmaker to make fashionable floor-length skirts. Families worked to create opulent homes and to cultivate a refuge from the crudeness of the streets. Many pleasant evenings were spent with the family on the verandah taking in the cool night air. Clark wrote of “the great porch in the rear where we really lived most of the time, here we worked and ate our meals and dreamed moonlight nights in the shadows cast by the roses and vines with ravishing mocking bird’s songs our only music”. 50
Figure 7: A family spends a day on the sand at the beach in Santa Monica, late 1880s. Courtesy of the Huntington Library.
In 1882, Los Angeles received its first telephone service. People were skeptical when they heard of the strange invention by which someone in his home could talk into a mouthpiece and another person miles away could hear what he was saying, but their skepticism quickly dissipated. When they tried it, they liked it. Angeleños were not shy of adopting new technologies. The growing local economy was apparent every day from the large number of wagons that thronged the streets. The town acquired ever more fine shops and warehouses. A new store carrying high-grade household goods, the Boston Store, opened in 1883 at the corner of Temple and Spring Street. The store grew and a few years later became the department store J.W. Robinson, Co., named for its founder.51 In the 1890s, mail-order catalog shopping boomed, facilitated by the now extensive rail network connecting Los Angeles to the rest of the country.
Henry Huntington’s Pacific Electric Railway began in 1897 and became Southern California’s interurban electric trolley system. At its peak in the 1920s, the Pacific Electric “Red Car” system had over two thousand streetcars and over a thousand miles of track throughout Los Angeles and its suburbs including Santa Monica, the San Fernando Valley, San Bernardino, and Newport Beach. At that time the Pacific Electric was the largest interurban electric railway system in the world.
Figure 8: Fishing for trophy-size tuna off Catalina was a fisherman’s paradise in the late 1880s to about 1910. Courtesy of the Huntington Library. The Los Angeles Flower Festival, also known as La Fiesta de Los Angeles, was organized as a charity event by upper-class women to build a home for needy girls. The festival ran annually from 1894-1897 and received unanimous public approval. Five days and nights of brilliant street pageants and entertainments attracted thousands of visitors from Southern California and from other states. The highlight of the festival was a parade each evening with girls ages six to eighteen wearing pageant costumes of flowers.52 There was also a carnival; Allie Prescott one evening watched the carnival instead of the Flower Festival. Later that evening she went to the comic opera Robin Hood.53 By this time, Los Angeles had developed a wide range of entertainment and cultural opportunities.
In 1903 a lemon grove was uprooted at the corner of Hollywood and Vine to make way for Hollywood’s first church congregation, and movie production arrived at the same time. This location is adjacent to today’s famous Pantages Theater. In 1910 three blocks from that church an early Hollywood film was produced there, Love Among the Roses, starring Mary Pickford. It was filmed in artist Paul de Longpre’s garden, at his mansion at the corner of Wilcox and Prospect Avenue.54 Prospect later became Hollywood Boulevard, and De Longpre’s garden was one of the first tourist attractions in Hollywood.
Many of Los Angeles’s suburbs also boomed during this period. Santa Monica was a popular vacation spot for locals and tourists alike. A local newspaper humorously mused that “Santa Monica was free from the pests so common in small towns since there were no hogs wandering the streets”.55 At first, people camped in tents by the shore, but by the 1880s the town had boarding houses and hotels, including the renowned Arcadia Hotel, which opened in 1887. It was named after the noble lady Arcadia Bandini Stearns Baker. The hotel was later lost in a fire.
Another popular destination, Catalina Island, was very isolated in the early days. This isolation became attractive to tourists, and its popularity grew. Catalina was for the most part socially relaxed, which fit well with the image of Southern California. Fishing had its heyday at Catalina from 1885 to 1912. It was one of the most productive fisheries on the Pacific Coast. Trophy-size tuna five feet in length were caught off Catalina’s shores, but by the end of this period, the famous big tuna were nearly gone.
Idyllic spots like Santa Monica and Catalina seemed to reflect the leisurely character of the whole of Los Angeles—whose climate and the particulars of whose early development, as explored in this article, gave it the air of leisure even when settlers were in the midst of work. California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft observed in 1886 that there was not another place in America where life was so much like a pleasant long holiday with less work and fewer cares. To this day, even though the city has changed considerably, because of its unique history and accounts that reinforced its image, Los Angeles has a reputation as the land of opportunity, where work pays off, individuals’ efforts are rewarded, and the living is easy.
I am grateful to Dowell Myers, USC Professor of Policy, Planning and Demography, and to Professor Gary Seaman, Director of USC Center for Visual Anthropology, both of whom wrote letters of recommendation that allowed me to gain access as a reader at the Huntington Library, San Marino. Peter Blodgett, Huntington Library Curator of Western History, was immensely helpful in identifying pertinent materials. Suzanne Oatey, Archivist of Visual Materials at the Huntington, was helpful with pictures. I am grateful to the staff at the Huntington’s Ahmanson Reading Room for their assistance to obtain rare reference materials. A special credit goes to Ryan Roark who did a superb job editing my article. Joe Lesser and my partner, Beth Scott, were helpful in reviewing the article. Joseph Cavallo of the Westerners Los Angeles Corral deserves a trophy for his encouragement and patience as Brand Book Editor while I took a long time to prepare the article.
Comer 1986: 31; Newmark 1916; For historians the term Early Los Angeles commonly refers to the Mission and Rancho eras from 1769 which was the beginning of the California Missions, to 1847 with the Treaty of Cahuenga which marked the end of the Mexican period and the beginning of the American period. In this article the term is used in the early stages of American culture starting in 1860.
According to the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History the population of Los Angeles was 1,610 in 1850, 11,183 in 1880, and 102,470 in 1900.
Bixby Smith 1987: 54.
Standlee 1920: 12.
The Transcontinental Railroad connected the East Coast with Sacramento and Oakland in 1869. From Sacramento, many migrated south.
Page 1964: 17.
Hawley 1876: 15.
Hawley 1876: 88.
Grider and Hamilton 1905: 4.
Royce 2002: xvi.
Lummis 1909: 247.
Nordhoff 1873: 126.
Hawley 1876: 56.